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Md. biotech firms working together on coronavirus responses

Martin Rosendale, CEO of the Maryland Tech Council

Martin Rosendale, CEO of the Maryland Tech Council

Traditionally competitive life sciences companies in Maryland have begun to collaborate as they develop tests, therapies and vaccines for COVID-19.

Several Maryland firms have said they are working on vaccines for the disease caused by the coronavirus, and other firms are working within research and development and the manufacturing supply chain.

“The competitive barriers have fallen down,” said Martin Rosendale, CEO of the Maryland Tech Council. “Companies understand that they have a bigger mission to accomplish and working together is going to get it done faster and bring about a better solution.”

Rosendale convened a call last week of Maryland biotech firms working on COVID-19 responses to help introduce them to each other and to learn about what they need.

The call included 34 executives from 20 companies in Maryland, who shared what they were doing and what they could offer as part of the collaboration.

Carol Nacy, CEO of Sequella, said the collaboration expressed on the call was what she has come to expect from the Maryland life sciences community.

Firms are collaborating because they are also often led by scientists who want to pitch in, she said.

“The one thing that we do in biotech is solve mysteries and find new technologies that can help patients,” she said. “And in a disaster like we are currently experiencing, there isn’t a scientist or a physician or a biotech executive who wouldn’t love to be a part of the solution to the problem.”

The collaboration includes both firms working directly on diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines and other firms that can help in a supporting role.

Sequella works mostly in antibiotics, Nacy said. But a lot of that focus is on tuberculosis, which can attack the lungs in similar ways to COVID-19, and she has offered her experience and expertise there. She also hopes one of the firm’s drugs that recently finished a phase 3 trial in Russia could be approved to help address coronavirus patients’ symptoms in the U.S.

Two other Maryland firms on the call included Emergent Biosolutions and Novavax. Novavax has received $4 million in initial funding from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations to create a COVID-19 vaccine.

Emergent Biosolutions has agreed to partner with Novavax on manufacturing. Emergent also has an agreement with a California firm working on its own vaccine.

The time frame for different products can be different. New tests have a shorter timeframe because much about the disease is already known and the regulatory burden is lighter.

Therapeutics used to treat the disease’s symptoms could take a couple of months because they require testing.

Vaccines will take longer. The shortest timeline is 12-18 months, and even that is shorter than the typical vaccine process because the federal government has tried to streamline it.

For those firms directly involved with making a vaccine, other companies are offering support.

U.S. Pharmacopeia, a nonprofit that creates standards for drugs and medication, has also offered help.

“The life science community in Maryland is very large and diverse,” said Jaap Venema, USP’s chief science officer. “Each of us comes with unique skills, resources, expertise. We are part of this collaborative effort to pool all of these resources.”

In addition to helping companies understand the guidelines and get up to speed as quickly as possible, USP also is knowledgeable about supply chains.

He also believes USP can help companies that are developing tests.

“We have products and services that will help manufacturers shorten their time in developing materials,” he said. “We have staff with a lot of expertise. They know how to develop a lot of tests and assays.”

The need during the coronavirus pandemic is significant. Sequella’s Nacy has seen it herself. Her husband is a physician and her son is an emergency room nurse.

“We need to take huge responsibilities for each other in this crisis. It’s not trivial. This is a very bad virus,” she said. “That’s why I think everyone that I know that is in this industry is just working their hearts out to figure out mechanisms we can use to fight this disease.”

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